HR Rope-a-Dope: When Will You Be Ready to Finally Go on the Offensive?

While letting the TV watch me the other night (which means that it is on and you are positioned to watch it, but the mind is wandering into the universe), I was brought back to life when I noticed that it was a documentary on Muhammad Ali, specifically the fight with George Foreman dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle.”

This was the fight that Ali appeared to be beaten but miraculously came back in the end to win it.

This was the fight that the strategy called “rope-a-dope” was invented.

The rope-a-dope is a tactic of protecting one’s self during combat while an opponent wears himself out. As the contest continues, the opponent tires and starts to make mistakes. Once that happens, the other boxer can exploit those mistakes with a counter attack.

In competitive situations other than boxing, rope-a-dope is used to describe strategies in which one party purposely puts itself in what appears to be a losing position, attempting thereby to become the eventual victor.

In the workplace today, I sense both organizations and HR leaders are being pummeled by the storm called recession. Unlike the hurricane that we just experienced here on the East Coast, which eventually petered out after leaving considerable damage, the storms battering the organization are continuing.

Effects of the big opponent

As sales revenues and profits decline, organizations have cut back on hiring new employees or have frozen hiring entirely. In an effort to cut costs and improve the bottom line, they may stop buying new equipment, curtail research and development, and stop new product rollouts

Expenditures for marketing and advertising may also be reduced. These cost-cutting efforts will impact other businesses, both big and small, which provide the goods and services used by the organization or the consumer.

The business may cut employees, and more work will have to be done by fewer people. Productivity per employee may increase, but morale may suffer as hours become longer, work becomes harder, wage increases are stopped, and fear of further layoffs persists.

The Rope-a-Dope strategy

Smart organizations and smart HR leaders are already planning or in the midst of the rope-a-dope strategy. As I follow discussions on Twitter,or  read posts on LinkedIn and Facebook, I get a sense that, at the very least, HR folks are reading, planning, plotting and executing their own rope-a-dope.

So while we may be in rope-a-dope mode, the vast majority of our peers are also waiting on the opportunity to pounce on the opponent called recession.

And that opponent has thrown out everything in the boxing playbook, including:

  • The Hook (employee engagement);
  • Upper cut (layoffs);
  • Jab (talent management);
  • Straight right hand (low morale);
  • Uppercut (lack of trust in management); and,
  • Combination (poor manager-subordinate relations).

The recession is still smoldering after we assumed it had been put to rest. The job numbers released last week showed no growth, which has caused more of us to think that maybe we are just on a merry-go-round.

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But the most important part of this equation is the human capital component of the organization and its strategy.

But like Hurricane Irene, it will be over — and that is what the rope-a-dope strategy will be about.

Where do we go from here?

I have always said that this is the perfect storm for Human Resources.

For HR departments that can’t raise the level of their game once the sunlight starts to reappear, well, I think you know what that means.

HR’s role is evolving. It needs to be involved in broader organizational activities. HR needs to become interdependent with the rest of the organization. HR needs to take a comprehensive approach that aligns its actions with the entire organizational strategy.

The strategic integration of HR into an organization achieves a competitive advantage. It has much to contribute in a strategic supporting role. The ultimate goal is to support an organization through the management of human capital, which is the major subset of the broader organization’s strategy.

Yes, HR needs to be part of the organization’s strategy development. In order for this to happen it must present top management with solutions that address the strategic need and support of the organization.

Let’s call it the HR Rope-A-Dope!

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


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